Next month, Wikipedia writers and editors around the world will elect three of the 10 members of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Elections occur on a regular cycle. But in 2015, Wikipedia and the various Wikimedia projects are at a critical juncture. This year, the chance to bring new voices to the fore in the Foundation’s central body is especially momentous.
With three seats up for grabs, the board could emerge from the election a very different entity. The relationship between the foundation and the volunteer base suffers from chronic dysfunction. The events new executive director Lila Tretikov’s first year (many are summarized here) haven’t revealed a voice of accountability for the organization; public communication is simply not among her many talents. She and the current board received a petition signed by 1,000 volunteers, but let it pass by without response. And so, the foundation’s hasty deployment of the chilling “superprotect” software feature (with which foundation staff can now wrest control of editorial or configuration decisions from the volunteers) remains in place, warts and all. Many months later, the foundation has yet to define the conditions under which it will or won’t use superprotect.
The board desperately needs a new approach. The foundation should operate from the premise that much of the wisdom about Wikipedia’s needs resides among the 100,000 volunteers who have made the site what it is today — a crowd whose demographics are often criticized, but are in many ways more diverse than the tech-heavy foundation staff. The foundation should rebuild on a bedrock of social sensibility, and cultivate expertise in governance and constructive deliberation. But that’s not the current agenda: the 35 new employees it plans to hire will be engineers.
If social dynamics and governance constitute the central challenge for the Foundation and the movement, what can be done? As the field of board candidates grows, hopefully some bold new plans will emerge. One or more fresh faces on the board could help turn the tide, potentially sparking an interest in governance practices in large, distributed online communities, and pointing the way toward changes that could decrease the toxicity of large-scale decisions.
Thus far, seven Wikimedians have declared their candidacy. A couple have mentioned governance as an issue of importance, but none of the candidate statements goes beyond a few general statements. Of course, it is early; candidates will have many opportunities to build a case, answer questions, and rally consensus around their visions for the future of the organization and of the movement. And, who knows how many candidates there will ultimately be: nominations are open until May 5.